I had never been on a train.
I’ve been on the train at Disneyland, and on the train in Durango, CO but, as fun as they are, I suppose they don’t actually qualify as legitimate train travel.
My little sister and her fiance moved to a middle of nowhere town about an hour and half from Barstow in Southern California this past weekend. We drove their cars out, but the nearest airport was not in fact very near, so the most sensical option was to drive into Barstow and take the train back to Albuquerque. In lieu of a bucket list, I’m trying to do one completely new and adventurous thing per month, so I figured this would be a great way to kick-off the year.
I honestly didn’t know that interstate train travel still existed on such a large scale in this country. I’ve never known anyone who has traveled by train, and I don’t think I’ve ever even seen a commercial or advertisement. I figured the railroads were reserved for hauling cargo instead of people.
I’ve also been convinced that the people who rode trains were hobos or bandits (WHERE DID THIS EVEN COME FROM?). Also, Murder on the Orient Express suggested that I might get stabbed by a whole gang of people if I slept. Pretty sure there were some dementors on the Hogwarts Express too…
But, a quick look on the Amtrak website showed us that train travel is alive and well with routes all over the place. So, in need of a way to get home, and keeping my eyes open for a new adventure for January, we decided to book 2 seats on the Southwest Chief.
Our less than 48 hour trip into California involved some In-n-Out Burger (probably 85% of the reason we went), a quick (and I mean very quick) drive through some really sketchy towns, some unloading and unpacking, and that’s just about it.
I went to college in the Bay Area, so I’ve done the drive through Barstow/general armpit of California many, many times, but I forgot just how un-“California” it all actually is (my sister does have a beautiful palm tree in her front yard thank goodness). I also forgot how cold it can get at night. We went on a 3.5 mile run in Barstow on Sunday morning pre-sunrise, and I didn’t pack any layers, so I was running in 37 degrees in shorts and a tank top. Which apparently was more reasonable than hopping on the hotel treadmill or you know, skipping it. Silly runners.
After the driving and unpacking (and watching the first half of the Broncos/Patriots game at a Sports Bar), my future brother-in-law dropped us off at the Barstow train station (why are train stations always in the scariest parts of town?). The place was kind of dark and abandoned at 9:40, and we weren’t at all positive that we were in the right place because there wasn’t a departure/arrival board and the building was locked. With the moon shining and the street lamps illuminating the tracks, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a contemplative Dagny Taggert standing on the platform, waiting for The Comet to arrive.
Eventually the train rolled up right on schedule, and with very little “to-do,” we boarded (they checked our tickets after we were seated). I have to say I’m a bit sad that the conductor didn’t yell “all aboard!”
Our car was already about half full of sleepy passengers when we boarded (it originates in LA and travels all the way to Chicago, so we were the 4th or 5th stop). We took our seats and reclined back, eager to sleep.
I think if we’d been a bit more prepared, we would have been quite comfortable. But we didn’t bring blankets or pillows, so we were cold and slightly contorted. For a higher premium, we could have reserved private sleeper cars, which I think would have been great if we were spending two nights on the train. The train made a few stops along the way (they were very fast stops), but aside from other trains passing right next to us on the track (which was kind of scary and loud) it was a pretty quiet ride. They also had power outlets at each seat, so we were able to charge our phones while we slept.
When we woke up the next morning, we headed to the snack cart for some $2 coffee, and watched the sunrise along the desert horizon from the observation car, which was set up with chairs facing the window.
We went to the dining car for breakfast, and it felt like a throwback to a more glamorous time complete with white table clothes and vases full of fresh flowers, all while watching the western New Mexico landscape unfold before our eyes. The railroad travels into those Route 66 roadside towns that the interstate bypasses, so, we got to see a lot of the charm that we usually miss traveling through I-40.
We pulled into Albuquerque about an hour earlier than scheduled, sufficiently fed and caffeinated, and very open to the idea of more train travel.
At a time when it seems that airlines add new fees while eliminating leg room on a daily basis, and a pleasant experience in the sky has been replaced with no-nonsense safety protocols to prevent terrorist attacks, I have to say that the very reasonably priced train fare ($75 per person from Barstow to Albuquerque, or $76 per person from LA to Albuquerque) coupled with the cheerful and accommodating attitude of the staff have really changed my thinking. Other selling points: the hassle-free boarding process (no security line!), convenient overnight itineraries that don’t make you feel like you are wasting time, ample space, and the ability to get up and stretch or walk around at any time. I also felt very safe which was truthfully one of our biggest concerns (and misconceptions) about train travel. No hobos!
I’m also thinking that train travel would be so much more comfortable after a marathon than a plane or car. Instead of waiting around in an airport and trying to make your legs not ache after sitting for a few hours, I could walk around at my leisure on a train, prop my feet up, and eat a decent meal at a real table. Seriously. It’s like my whole outlook on travel has changed. Even my mom said she would do it again (and that’s saying something).
So, January’s new experience has been successfully crossed off.
I hope you are having a wonderful week despite all of the weather weirdness. It was 10 degrees here this morning which I know is warmer than most places. STAY WARM!